Tennessee DMV: the 322nd Circle of Hell

Cover Image for Tennessee DMV: the 322nd Circle of Hell
Paxton Duff
Paxton Duff

If there is a woebegone place of eternal fire, Hitler and Osama are currently sitting there and waiting to hear their confusing alphanumeric combinations called at the Tennessee DMV.

Though technically called the Tennessee DSC (driver’s services center), this institution became famous in 2003 for the role it nearly played in the War on Terror. Here is a discussion that reportedly happened on March 1 of that year. (George Tenet was Director of the CIA)

George W. Bush: George, come in. What’s the situation?

George Tenet: Mr. President, we just received classified news from Rawalpindi.

Bush: Ronald’s Paninis? I made it known last week that I don’t want them for lunch ever again. Am I being Punk’d again? *smirks and looks around for a camera*

Tenet: No, sir. Rawalpindi is a city in Pakistan. I’ve received word that we’ve captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Bush: That’s excellent. Who is he and what role does he play in the Axis of Evil?

Tenet: He was the mastermind of 9-11, sir.

Bush: Fantastic. Is he alive?

Tenet: According to the reports I received, he’s alive and in detainment.

Bush: Mission accomplished.

Tenet: Sorry?

Bush: Nothing… What’s our next move?

Tenet: That’s why I’ve come to you, sir. You have a decision to make. I don’t want to influence you, but we have above-board, enhanced interrogation techniques in the works.

*Enter assistant*

Assistant: Mr. President, we’ve got Jeb on the phone. He needs you to settle an argument with his wife.

Bush: Family comes first, George. I’ll be right back.

*Enter Dick Cheney, moving like Randle from Monsters Inc.*

Dick Cheney: George, let me handle this. I have the President’s ear on matters like these.

Tenet: Dick, this is his call… But what are you thinking?

Dick: Let’s send Khalid to the Tennessee DSC every day until he gives us names.

Tenet: I can’t look my family in the eyes tonight if I suggest that to the President.

Dick: It’s the only way.

(Cheney was overruled. For the record, I have a soft spot for the younger Bush—no, not Jeb.)

Flash forward 16.4 years from that day, where I found myself waiting in the pit of despair known as the Tennessee DSC. I passed some time by Googling Dante’s circles of hell; it’s hilarious how many millions of students have had to memorize the bizarre figments of Dante’s imagination. Is Judas Iscariot upside down in ice or right-side up? Is he able to communicate with Lucifer, or is his head frozen cryonically? Liberal arts is really keeping up with the times!

I looked up from my phone and quit laughing, for I realized the DMV experience was firmly alongside Ulysses in the “fraud” circle—for the record, Kentucky’s DMV (and presumably the other 48 states) rarely dips below gluttony.

I must, however, give the Volunteer state some credit. Its university gave us Peyton Manning and they run their Motor Vehicle Department with the most shameless waste of tax dollars since… actually this is a better use than the average dollar.

For starters, Tennessee has no state income tax, so they find unique ways to cut costs. The primary way is to limit the number of people served each day. Here is the theoretical number of people they have to serve.

  1. Greater Nashville has about 2.1 million people and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

  2. Greater Nashville has 2.5 DMVs open. These are open Monday to Friday 8:30 to 5.

  3. Let’s say the average person has to go to the DMV every 3 years. That means that 700,000 people in Greater Nashville visit the DMV each year. 700k/2.5 = 280,000 visitors per location.

  4. 280,000 visitors / 261 federal workdays = A little more than 1,000 people per day at each location.

  5. This includes people who don’t drive, so we’ll say 400 people. With 3-5 workers each actually working 5 hours per day, that’s 25 man/woman hours. That would require processing 16 people per hour, or 12 more than I observed.

How can they avoid a giant backlog of people?

Open new branches: This sounds like it requires money and effort so no.

Hire a person of below-average intelligence to assess the systems of the DMV and improve efficiency by 700% immediately: This actually makes too much sense, so I have no joke to make.

Make more people die: This one would help, but the attempts are halfhearted. By opening and closing the locations during rush hour, placing them near major roads, and incentivizing a stampede, more people will be killed. This equates to fewer customers being served. Driving in a Hyundai Sonata surrounded by a fleet of F150s left me feeling like Darren Sproles. In the immortal words of Tyler Durden, my survival rate of attempting to get a license reaches zero on a long enough timeframe.

The Present Solution: Never. Change.

Indeed, the Tennessee DMV wisely decided that the best way to save money is to higher fewer workers and provide them minimal resources; the logical next step is to train the existing employees to maximize inefficiency, which is one of their defining traits.

Rather than provide a linear narrative of my day, I’ll showcase some images from my 5 hours in hell, with accompanying descriptions.

A Day at the DMV in Photos


Is this a scene from Bird Box? No, this is the DMV. I arrived at 8:32 AM. The place opened at 8:30. I parked several hundred meters away and did that *awkward run-walk where we’re all racing but avoid eye contact and pretend we’re not trying to be the first to the door*, which turned out to be futile, since people arrived as early as 6:30.

How do I know what time other people arrived?

I know this because the guy next to me reminded me every 15 minutes for four straight hours. His routine: hyperactively shake his legs for 10 minutes, angrily take a smoke break, then return and tell me “man, this is crazy. I been here since 6:30.”

What do the people who arrive before 8:30 AM do? They form a line that stretches around the building and comprise what has to be the most depressing line of people within a 300-mile radius—imagine telling the hundreds of kids who lined up outside bookstores to get Harry Potter 7 that they had to wait 5 extra hours and OH BY THE WAY HARRY SLIPS ON HIS OWN WAND AND DIES IN CHAPTER ONE.


You probably read that word as “hanger,” as in coat hanger or airplane hanger. Now read it with a hard G, for the intersection of hunger and anger is a common trait amongst us peasants at the DMV.

In theory, if we know the wait is going to take five hours, we should be able to drive down the block to grab some Taco Bell. Think again, for this is where Tennessee’s DMV establishes itself as truly elite at inefficiency.

I was given queue number Q322. Q322 was called within 15 minutes of my arrival, and I smiled to myself while thinking that I bested all of the plebes who had told me horror stories of the Tennessee DMV. Alas, the first Q322 call was to confirm that I brought my documents. The young woman working was remarkably bubbly—all part of the cruel but effective DMV setup. She told me, “Everything looks good, just wait on the other side now. You just need to take a picture.”

(The daguerrotype was the first real camera. It was invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre. It took 15 minutes to develop a photo. 15 minutes. It is now 2019. I reasonably did not expect a picture to take four more hours).

Two hours in, I realized I was fated to do a 15-hour fast, for a logical order (such as Q1-Q500) did not exist. Instead, there were many alphanumerics, none of which aligned. D113, R230, Q300, D 314, Q323 (cruel), Q320, D115, D114, R244, R240, A101 (what?).

The dude who arrived at 6:30 was D118, and they decided to take a 3-hour break from calling “Ds” once they got to 117. Hilarious.

With no ability to guess one’s place in line, it wasn’t worth leaving to eat. Ultimately, I ended my bout of hunger-induced dizziness with a celebratory drive to Taco Bell where I ate two Crunchwraps (random internet photo seen above). I’m aware many people are actually starving out there, but the whole point of living in America is that we’re supposed to show our gratitude for the food we have by eating until we pass out on Thanksgiving. The blessings of America are not designed to break unwanted fasts at T-Bell.

Noise Pollution and Jolly Employees

They say that nature is restorative for our creative minds and that it lowers our stress levels. The Tennessee DMV is the exact opposite. The cacophony of iPhones auto-playing Facebook videos in seven languages while the PA voice announces D113 every 10 seconds (for 5 hours) left me distressed. A potential theory: the highly unpleasant workers in there have simply lost their minds due to the surround sounds.

Speaking of workers, my favorite worker was an exact doppelgänger Javier Bardem’s character…

… only if he tried the Supersize Me diet every single day since No Country for Old Men came out in 2007. Please picture that for a second.

About half of the people in the DMV do not speak English natively, and Javier guy forced this interaction at least six times in front of me.

Javier: mmmreadmmmmmbers.

Person: What?


A little girl behind me kept playing Dora the explorer videos on full blast, but the catlike reflexes of TURN YOUR PHONES OFF OUT OF RESPECT FOR OTHERS from Javier were excellent. Kudos to him. I spent a solid hour staring at this guy, wondering if he is paid more to act as over-the-top miserably as he can every day until he retires.

I then reflected for the next hour: do the most miserable people in America self-select into working at the DMV, or does the workplace + soundscape drive them into misery? I have literally no idea, but the moment I decided that I had peaked was when my buddy (the guy who arrived at 6:30 AM) stopped a random worker who made the mistake of walking near us:

Buddy: Ma’am, I been here since 6:30.

Employee: I believe you. *Walks away*

Genius. This isn’t her first rodeo.

An Ironic Book Choice

Though the functioning of the DMV is equally bulls*** for all visitors, I accidentally doubled down on the misery. As I ran out the door at 8 AM, I decided that I should bring a book in case I have to wait—maybe up to an hour! I had just been loaned the book Economism from a friend who read last week’s blog post, and it sounded interesting. As I learned, the book is primarily an attack on free markets rather than an education in economics, so I weathered the shrieks and ringtones from my fellow plebes and read about how the government can solve all of our problems.

The irony was too much, but eventually my number was called, so maybe Bernie is the second coming after all. Javier can be his VP.

As a reward for showing up with all 6 documents and waiting 300+ minutes, I was issued a paper ID and told that the real one will come in the mail in 3 weeks. Even my gym can print a plastic ID card in seconds. The Tennessee DMV’s commitment to inefficiency deserves more credit than it gets. The 1.9 Yelp stars are condescending—this institution does not want our sympathy.

If you are one of the dozens of young people moving to Tennessee each day, don’t update your ID—even if it’s is expired like mine was. I implore you.

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